Mother and daughter share Penn State commencement bond — and date

When 52-year-old Renee Gibson receives her long-awaited Penn State degree on May 4, her 22-year-old daughter Clare will be there — and she’ll be in her own cap and gown.

Just a few hours before Renee receives her baccalaureate degree from the College of the Liberal Arts via Penn State World Campus, Clare will graduate from the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences with a degree in meteorology and atmospheric sciences with minors in climatology and geography.

Fulfilling a promise she quietly made to herself long before Clare or her older brother, Jacob, were born, Renee said she yearned to complete the degree she started at University Park in 1990 when she was just out of high school. And while time may have reframed her scholarly focus from civil engineering to the liberal arts, she’s making good on that promise — and then some. Far surpassing her own expectations, the Harrisburg native will represent her classmates as the integrative social sciences major marshal during spring commencement — something she says she’s still shocked is happening.

“When I first got the notice that I was selected as a student marshal for academic excellence, I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ I even contacted one of my advisers to ask if it was real,” Renee said, laughing.

Unlike now, Renee found herself overwhelmed, anxious, and “without the proper emotional tools to navigate college” during her initial time at Penn State, she said. She was placed on academic probation during her second year and made the decision to leave school shortly thereafter.

She had also recently met Kevin Gibson at a mutual friend’s party around that time, and just over a year later, the two were married. Perhaps, she thought, school wasn’t in her plan.

“This has all been incredibly surreal. To have taken this long to get my degree and perform now the way I wish I could’ve performed then, it’s like I still don’t quite believe it’s going to happen. I’m extremely excited,” she said of her current Penn State experience.

A family affair

Clare Gibson said she’d always told her parents she’d never attend Penn State. Both parents had studied and met there, and dad received his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1993. Her grandfather (Renee’s father) Michael Bombay was also a Nittany Lion, earning his bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering in 1970 and his master’s in engineering in 1975. She would be a third-generation Penn Stater, but she wanted something different.

Mother and daughter graduates Renee, left, and Clare Gibson pose outside of Penn State’s Rec Hall where Renee’s parents stood more than 50 years ago when her father earned his Bachelor of Science in Engineering in 1970. Courtesy photo.

“My parents would tell me endless stories about Penn State and reminisce about their time here; they loved it,” Clare said. “I felt I had to pave my own way, go against the trend — it was almost a need to rebel.”

“There was even a point when my mom was contemplating a job change and asked if I thought I’d consider Penn State,” added Clare. “She said she could look for a job here, allowing me to attend at a significant discount. I said, ‘absolutely not.’ I had made up my mind.”

Then, during an 11th-grade Earth science class, Clare became deeply interested in meteorology and climate change, she said. She learned her teacher had studied meteorology at Penn State, and her own research of schools with the top programs in the field led Clare to realize the best place for her to study was Penn State.

Clare has flourished as a college student, excelling in her major and minors, serving as an Earth and mineral sciences (EMS) ambassador and participating in THON™, where she danced on behalf of EMS earlier this year.

“I guess it was inevitable,” Clare said. “Looking back, it was the best choice I could’ve made. The Penn State College of Earth and Mineral Sciences allows for a personalized experience where you really get to know the faculty, staff, and your fellow students. It provides you with a real sense of community away from home. Penn State is definitely in my blood now!”

All roads lead to Penn State

It was around 1999 when Renee began to rethink some things and decided to stop by Penn State Wilkes-Barre (near her home at the time) “just to see” what options they might have for continuing her education. That’s when she discovered World Campus, with its focus on lifelong learning and its ability to offer students living anywhere a quality Penn State education.

Although she was still not quite ready to complete a bachelor’s degree, she decided to enroll and pursue an associate degree in letters arts and sciences in 2000.

“It was great! It was enough for me at the time, and I didn’t think I’d go back. I was happy where I was,” she said, “By then I had a job that I enjoyed as an administrative associate with Penn State Health and knew I could eventually help Clare with her tuition. Life was good.”

While she was happy with all that she’d accomplished, it didn’t take long for the idea of completing a bachelor’s degree to creep back into Renee’s mind.

With a World Campus education already an affordable option and factoring in her staff discount, Renee decided it would be “silly” not to at least explore her options, she said. So, two-and-a-half years ago, she made the decision to begin her journey to finally get that bachelor’s degree.

She overwhelmingly credits World Campus with her student success, sharing that advisers worked with her from day one to design a reasonable plan for what she wished to accomplish, set a clear path for her to follow, and made the entire process so seamless that the end result never felt unattainable.

“I really can’t say enough about World Campus,” Renee said. “I would never be where I am today without the guidance of my advisers. It’s absolutely the best place.”

A celebration twice as nice

Though a multigenerational graduation wasn’t part of anyone’s plan, Renee and Clare said they are both happy to share their special moment and success together.

When the timing of her course completions became clear, Renee realized that she and Clare were slated to graduate at the same time. So, she offered to either speed up or slow down her progress so not to impede on Clare’s day.

Daughter and mother, Clare and Renee Gibson, will graduate from Penn State on the same day, May 4, during the University’s 2024 spring commencement weekend. Courtesy photo

“After the pandemic had robbed Clare of a high school graduation ceremony, I wanted her to have this for herself because she’s worked so hard,” Renee said. “But she wouldn’t hear of it; she wanted us to do this together.”

“It’s been amazing for me to see my mom so excited about something,” Clare said. “I’ve loved watching her learn right alongside me and to see her so passionate and so proud of what she’s accomplished. She’s realizing her dream, and I couldn’t be happier for her.”

Never too late

Not finishing the degree she started 34 years ago had weighed heavily on her, said Renee, so having the opportunity and the support to try again has meant everything. With Clare weighing the options of graduate school and full-time employment in her field, Renee said she will continue working to support and advance the objectives of companies and institutions that serve the public’s best interests. 

“The flexibility of earning a liberal arts degree through World Campus has opened the door to so many new possibilities,” Renee said. “Integrated social sciences’ focus on social behaviors, communication, and relationships helped to provide me with insight into how society functions. Having this knowledge will help me to better understand how to work with others to create better outcomes in a variety of situations.

“With the support of my loved ones, World Campus advisers, and some hard work, I got to the place I am today,” she added. “If I had any advice to give to someone considering a return to school, I would quote George Eliot: ‘It’s never too late to be what you might have been.’ Luckily, it wasn’t too late for me. I just needed to take the first step toward my goal.”